Postmodern Orientalism: How has West’s view of East changed?

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In “Orientalism,” one of the most renowned books in the social sciences, Palestinian American professor Edward Said made a ground-breaking argument about how contemporary Western political-cultural discourse has constructed the Orient.

Indeed, the West first envisioned the East with its own set of notions on an intellectual plane, then established it in practice as political units dependent on it, thanks to the influence of the Enlightenment in its foundations and colonialism as a form of political dominance. This can be seen as a very successful representation of the contemporary East-West interaction.

The West developed its existence in a modern form through scientific disciplines of knowledge between the middle of the 19th century and the last quarter of the 20th century, broadly speaking. As Said has successfully demonstrated, social science fields like anthropology, archaeology, history and geography defined the Western subject and distinguished the non-Western “other” during this process.

The general trajectory of world political history over the lengthy 19th and early 20th centuries was basically along these lines. In a way, the term “Orientalism” refers to the capacity of Western dominance in the East to acquire scientific credibility. Additionally, it functions as a tool for direct political dominance by influencing colonial practices.

Since the publication of Edward Said’s “Orientalism” in 1978 until the late 1990s, when Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis gained popularity, this very “modern” story has expressed a legitimate paradigm. The concept of “modernity,” as defined and created by the West, sees the relationship between the East and the West as “rational,” that is, as having very clear bounds and being one-sided. However, the late 1970s also saw the emergence of a new mode of thinking that was based on the European intellectual scene and called into question any rational or generalized narrative.

‘The Gulf War didn’t happen’

Postmodernism defines a way of thinking that emerged in the French philosophy environment of the 1970s and then expanded across the entire world in terms of social, cultural, philosophical and aesthetics, despite the fact that it is impossible to define it over specific bounds. It certainly gets more complicated because many postmodernists refuse to acknowledge their postmodernity. Postmodernism, however, can still be seen as a critical discourse that is fundamentally at odds with “modern” rational patterns, potentially undermining important tenets of Western civilization in this ambiguity.

One of the pioneers of postmodernism, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, developed his simulation theory to provide a sociological and philosophical justification for how reality has changed in the postmodern era. Then the assertion made by Baudrillard that “the Gulf War did not happen” came to light. Baudrillard claimed that we live in a world of simulacrum, which is constructed from the original and, over time, drastically alters reality rather than reflecting it.

According to Baudrillard, reality is irrelevant in a world where we are unable to tell the difference between the real and the simulacrum. Because the media is the only source of our reality nowadays, it really creates reality by feeding images of those things rather than the actual “things.”

When television screens showed the bombing of Iraq with guided missiles by the United States and its allies in August 1990, no one sitting on their comfortable sofas and relishing their snacks questioned the authenticity of the event. The concept of “visual war,” which has been a part of our lives since then, also heralded the dominance of simulacrum, that is, representations that capture reality.

Postmodern identities

Although there are numerous ways in which Baudrillard’s perspective is informative, the subject of how he modifies the relationality between East and West through Orientalism has not been addressed. First of all, Orientalism is the West’s contemporary representation of the East; it may be thought of as the Western subject’s mental image of the East. While the postmodern era saw a significant change in the content of this construction activity, practically every foundational idea – particularly those from the West and the East – has taken on a new shape.

In the postmodern era, the standardized and generic depiction of the oriental individual does not make much sense. First and foremost, national identities and cultures become outmoded ideas that start to deteriorate after modernity since they are fundamentally contemporary concepts. In the postmodern era, we have institutional conceptions beyond concepts like the state or nation, even though the identity card of the modern individual and the predispositions or habits originating from them forecast a pretty regular and stable reality. In a way, companies like Apple and Starbucks can be compared to the Vatican of the Middle Ages, which encircles the government and isn’t afraid to assert its “spiritual” authority over it.

In such a universe, the depiction of the East does not imply the ex negativo other, which provides the Western subject with a homogenous whole. Because the construction of the Western subject, which is the process of defining it by its own authority, has taken on a totally different shape in postmodern reality. The exclusive culturalist or ethnic form of modernism is no longer how Western societies see themselves. Contrary to popular belief, multiculturalism does not represent a possessive embrace of the Eastern culture but rather a response that the West needs to acquire in order to retain its own survival.

East as a new simulacrum

In this case, the imaginary and cliched representation of the East, which was shaped by the fantasies of 19th-century Western travelers, has already lost its ability to imitate reality, and the “clash of civilizations” paradigm, largely based on this image, is no longer valid. This is similar to how the image of the East is twisted and demonized on television after 9/11 and is based on acts of terrorism.

The identity of the new East, or the idea of the postmodern East, primarily detaches from deeply ingrained and dimly recalled fantasies and corresponds to an imitation beyond standardized narratives. For a Westerner, being Eastern still entails being the other, and vice versa. However, in postmodern times, the value of these two possessions has diminished significantly in comparison to the other possessions made available by capitalism. That is the difference.

If an Englishman of Indian descent can become the prime minister of the United Kingdom, or if two German citizens of Turkish descent can find a vaccine that is the solution to a disease that ravaged the whole world, the boundaries of national belonging seem eroded. Now the East – but still as a simulacrum rather than the “true” East, is bound to make sense in a new relationality that is highly intertwined with the West.

One of the names who has adopted this new form of belonging most painfully, Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, who writes in French, summarizes it, “It is obvious that this universal mixing of images and of ideas, which continues to intensify and that no one does not seem able to control, will profoundly transform – and, from the point of view of the history of civilizations, in the very short term – our knowledge, our perceptions, and our behaviors.”

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